Rest: The Real Work

At the novice level of the Starting Strength program, as in many pure strength programs, you only lift two or three days a week.  The other days are for rest.  Period.  That has been one of the toughest mental adjustments for me, and it also seems to be one of the most difficult concepts for many of my friends at the gym to grasp.

In high school and college, I used to train for cross country races and for marathons.  Coach had rest weeks programmed into our training, and I struggled with those, with the week or two at the end of each season when Coach said we were not allowed to run.  I can remember in high school, coming home and trying to read poetry in the living room instead of running.  Forcing myself to be still.  My mind and my heart were not in it.  I wanted to be moving.  

As an adult that desire to keep moving translated into working out, moving to move, exercising to sweat and feel like I’d left it all on the floor in a spin class or on the road while running, pushing a baby stroller uphill to burn off stress or anxiety.  Without Coach enforcing rest weeks, I skipped them.  Sometimes I skipped rest days during the week too.  If I’m honest about why I did that, I’d have to say that exercise was, and still is, a coping mechanism for me – endurance exercise as a way to manage, to endure, whatever was bothering me at the moment.  Often that was a daily thing.  

Coming from that mindset, when I first heard Artemis say that training strength requires you to leave the gym feeling like you still have one more rep in the hole, one that you didn’t spend, the concept made no sense to me.  When Craig told me that to lift like he does, he takes 2-3 days off per week, I was a little stunned.  Even Tim, whose training for physique competitions has him lifting 5-6 days per week, usually takes a full week of rest before hitting the same body part again.  The rest and recovery might be less apparent in his program, but it’s still there.

As I struggled to adjust to all the extra rest in my new strength program, I tried to finagle a different answer out of Emily.  Right!  As if I could get her to tell me I could just lift lighter weights on my “rest” days.  Her reply: “Honestly, you should be doing nothing on your rest days. That’s why they are rest days. Walking is fine. Gentle yoga is okay. Conditioning work is not resting unless it is the light cardio stuff. Your rest day should be a real rest day. 😉 For some, a day in between is enough. For others, older trainees, two days off in between. If you want to get stronger, you have to rest. You have to pick your goal. Get stronger or get sweaty. Exercise or train. Pick your goal.”  Ugh!  Truth hurts.

But to look around, it’s not surprising that I tend to undervalue the importance of rest in training.  We live in a culture of “go big or go home”.  I have taught in facilities where instructors encourage participants to go “balls to the wall” all the time.  And so many people that I see at my gym come in and pound their bodies on a daily basis, even taking multiple classes in a row.  They work hard, rarely take days off, and never seem to have an off season.  They aren’t necessarily training for anything; they are exercising.  They don’t have a coach to tell them their body needs rest to rebuild, to make them take time off.  When they don’t see the results they are looking for, they figure they need to work harder.  When that doesn’t help, eventually some of them give up.  

There are many reasons why people exercise like this.  Some people are doing what they think is right based on popular fitness magazines.  Some claim they exercise so they can earn dessert.  Some seem to be punishing themselves for what they ate yesterday.  Exercise is a coping mechanism for many people, as it has been for me, and that’s ok; it serves that purpose very well.  However, even those who are exercising as opposed to training need rest.  If you’ve been undervaluing the importance of rest days like I have done, maybe it’s worth looking into the reasons why.  Those reasons are usually complex and deserve some attention.  The way Emily describes it, “Our rest days are the days when we are really working.  We’ve broken down muscle lifting heavy, and the rest days are when we do the real work of rebuilding ourselves stronger.”  Rest days are necessary to make gains.  Those are the days when we can get a little extra sleep, prep healthy food, take care of ourselves, and patiently wait to build strength.  Sometimes that’s the hardest work.

Why We Lift; How We Lift

Endurance Strength v Hypertrophy v  Pure Strength

In theory lifting weights seems fairly straight-forward.  You just walk into a weight room and lift heavy s#!t.  In actuality it’s a little more complicated than that.  There are tons of different programs to help people build strength, all promoting different rep and set schemes, varying numbers of rest days, different exercises, and even different ways of conceptualizing the body.  In order to choose the “right” approach, it helps to be clear on your goal.  For me the three approaches I explored were endurance strength (or something like that, in the group fitness lifting program that I teach), hypertrophy (the way Tim lifts for physique competitions), and pure strength (the approach Emily and Craig take).

My initial exposure to weightlifting came through group fitness classes.  Several years ago a friend suggested that I try a class with her; she said she used to take this class at her old gym and was never in better shape.  It was a copywrited program replicated nationally in participating, licenced gyms with instructors who were certified by the parent company.  Most gyms have a variation of this type of strength class.  In the space of 60 minutes, we worked our whole bodies starting with larger muscle groups, like “legs” and “back”, and then moving on to smaller ones, like biceps and triceps.  One up-beat song was dedicated to each muscle group; so for example when we worked biceps, we were doing biceps curls for about 4 minutes straight.  I enjoyed the music and the group atmosphere; some days it felt like dancing with weights.  Since we hit every body part in the the hour, the recommendation is to take the class only 2-3 times a week.  The other days, most people took a spin class or went running.  Pretty manageable for busy people.  This combination approach of strength and cardio addresses the general fitness concerns of most people and it is fun.  For several years I continued with this format, and eventually, I became a certified instructor as well.

This type of work probably most closely fits the standard definition of muscular endurance training, although not quite.  When lifting for muscular endurance, people typically lift 60-70% of the heaviest weight they can move for a particular exercise; they do so for 2-3 sets of 12-16 repetitions with 30-60 seconds of rest between sets, and they usually aim to work to fatigue or failure.  Unlike muscular endurance training, the group fitness version which I experienced tended to drastically reduce the rest between sets, sometimes skipping it entirely before heading into another set, and I’m pretty sure we exceeded 48 total reps on most tracks, or songs.  Although there were guidelines about how much weight to put on the bar, at that many total reps, I doubt we actually were lifting 60-70%, and the amount of weight I loaded onto my bar on any given track only increased about twice in five years.  By the end of a track, most of us felt pretty fatigued, and people would joke about not being able to straighten their arms or having wobbly legs, even into the following day,  Most of that feeling of soreness despite the lack of significant change to the amount of weight we normally loaded on our bars has to do with the periodized approach of the class, meaning the exercises change every 6 weeks or so.  The class is adaptable, so people of all ages and fitness levels can participate, but not always with great form and not always with appropriately chosen weights, so that’s a potential cause of injury or stagnation.  In any case, the overall objective of general fitness was achieved, to move some weight, sweat, and have fun while doing so.  People usually leave the classes a little stronger, more durable, and better able to function effectively in the real world.

Some days my schedule didn’t mesh with the group fitness schedule, and I found myself in the free weight room.  On those days, I usually tried to replicate something along the lines of what I had done in my group fitness classes.  Looking around a free weight room, most women were doing something similar, or possibly they were following a program they had read about in a magazine.  If they were working from a magazine, whether they realized it or not, they were most likely doing some type of hypertrophy training.

Hypertrophy training done correctly is often a 6-day a week endeavor, in which a person works one or two major muscle groups at a time in really high-volume and allows about 72 hours of recovery before revisiting the same muscle group.  This is the way Tim trains.  He’ll say things like “today is a legs day” or “it’s back and tri today”.  He segments his body, usually into antagonist muscle groups, and attacks each part separately, isolation work.  Hypertrophy training requires heavier weights than we use in group fitness classes, usually about 70-80% the most weight someone can move, sometimes more.  Tim will do four or more exercises for each muscle group in sets of 3-6.  Rest time between exercises is about 30-90 seconds or, if he’s supersetting or doing compound sets, the rest time between sets might be non-existent.  He usually does 6-12 reps at a time, so at 3-6 sets of 4+ exercises, potentially he’s doing something like 250 total reps for each muscle group.  In between lifts, Tim eats a ton, seriously.  Eight meals and two supplemental shakes a day.  Lots of protein and healthy carbs, but there’s hardly anything beyond essential fat in his diet or on his body.  As with endurance strength, hypertrophy training leaves an individual stronger and more effective in the real world, but the goal really is to achieve a certain powerful and cut appearance.  After all, Tim trains this way for physique competitions; he’s judged somewhat subjectively on how his muscles look.

Hypertrophy training is brutal.  Tim has trained my pull-up hypertrophy style.  When we started, I could do 4 dead hang pull-ups for several sets, but he was tossing out crazy numbers:  “OK, this time you’re going to do 8.”  It just made me laugh.  Once I finished a satisfactory number of pull-ups, obviously with assistance to meet the higher volume, he’d send me to the cable machine for rows or the lat pull-down bar to “finish me off”.  By the time I had progressed to weighted pull-ups, he would have me do as many as I could with the weights I could handle, and then he’d load me up with more than I could pull on my own, “to shock my muscles.”  “Basically,” he says, “I wanted your body to feel that weight to let it know that this is what it eventually will need to pull up. This method not only gives you confidence for the next time, but by allowing me to help you push past that failure threshold you are able to complete the eccentric portion of the lift. This is where a lot of hypertrophy happens, as well as strength gains.”  I’ll give him a maybe on the feeling confident part, but my body definitely gets shocked.  By the end of a session, I don’t just feel fatigued like I have in the group fitness classes; I feel like my muscles are crying, maybe even bleeding.  I don’t think I whine, but I definitely whimper, and I continue to feel sore for a few days after.  All that being said though, I’m pretty certain he got me to the point where I could do weighted pull-ups on my own faster than I would have otherwise.

Either of these types of lifting, endurance strength or hypertrophy, fall more along the lines of what my strength training friends would call conditioning or cardio.  Training pure strength is a totally different animal.  When Craig first called my group strength classes “cardio,” I was pretty sure he had misunderstood me, because as far as I knew cardio was strictly something like Spin or running.  For strength coaches though, cardio is lifting lighter weights faster.  Strength training involves moving 80-100% maximum weight in 1-5 sets of 1-6 reps.  The lifts are generally total-body movement patterns, like squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press, and each lift day usually includes only 2-4 exercises.  In strength training, rest is crucial.  Depending on how much weight you’re moving, rest time between sets can be anywhere between 3-10 minutes.  And rest time between lift days is 48-72 hours, so you only train strength 2-3 times each week.  When Craig lifts really heavy, 1 rep, there can be enough weight on the bar that the bar actually starts to bend, and his rests are long enough for him to send me way more links to articles on T-nation than I have time to read in a day.  There isn’t much (or any) cardio or conditioning in between strength training sessions because that just breaks down what you’re trying to build.  Rest days are for resting, period.  When training pure strength, great attention is paid to those rest days between lifts: protein intake, hydration, sleep, stress management, consumption of nutrient-rich, real foods.  Strength training the way Craig describes it is a lifestyle that transcends the weight room.

My first experience with strength training was when Craig coached me on proper form for the big lifts and got me started on a 5×5 program, which I could track on an app on my phone.  I had an A day of 3 big lifts and a B day of 3 big lifts.  With enough rest in between lifts, the goal is to be able to add 5# to each lift each time it comes around in the program.  I soon realized that if I was going to do this the way it was intended, I wasn’t going to able to do it alone. I also realized eventually that I was going to have to reconsider the rest of my workouts and really have rest days.  That’s when I started traveling to Baltimore to work with Emily at FiveX3Training.  FiveX3Training is a Starting Strength facility; this means Emily and her husband Diego teach Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength System which “makes use of the most basic movement patterns that work the entire body as a coordinated system, gradually increasing loads that make the whole body stronger, in a logical, understandable, time-tested manner – the way athletes have gotten stronger for millennia.”  http://startingstrength.com/about  Emily says, “We teach nothing new….just a systematic approach to barbell training that makes sense to people and works.”

Initially A day is squat, OH press, deadlift; and B day is squat, bench, deadlift.  I go through my warm up sets at light weights that gradually increase until I get to 3 sets of 5 reps at my working weight.  Then I go home, rest and eat (lots of protein, 3-5 meals), and come back the next time to add 5 more pounds to my bar.  That’s the novice program.  I’m getting to a point now where I can’t add 5 more pounds to each lift each time, so Emily and Diego have started to finesse my program.  For some lifts I go up incrementally (2.5#) or work in triples.  I’m also getting to the point where my CNS is too taxed by the weight of the deadlift to do it every time, so I have started alternating that with a power lift, like power clean or power snatch.  I have just reached the point where I am making these changes, so the road ahead may feel different, but until now, I always have left FiveX3Training feeling like I had worked hard but like I still had more to spend; at the end of a set I was tired, probably even struggled to get the last rep, but 5 minutes later I felt like I could have gone again.  In her “I Am Not Afraid to Lift” workshop, Artemis explains this sensation as “leaving the gym feeling as though you still have one rep in the hole.”  Not until I reached the point where I had maxed out my ability to deadlift every time did I ever feel sore the next day.  My joints are appreciating doing 15 meaningful reps 2-3 times a week, instead of hundreds of reps.  But the most exciting part is that I can tell from the weight on the bar, that each session, I am getting stronger, and that is the goal – to build total body strength.

For me right now, this style of training is the most appealing on multiple levels.  For starters, it’s training for a clear purpose of gaining strength; it’s not just moving to move.  Right now, I am really appreciating having goals in my training.  That was not always the case.  When my kids were little, I just needed to workout, to blow off steam; that is what allowed me to cope with my day.  I needed to be durable in the real world and to feel good about myself by exercising.  Maybe it would have helped at that point to have been working towards goals, but my life was too unpredictable.  I felt like I couldn’t see that far ahead, like I was doing well if I just survived the day.  Adequate amounts of sleep and proper nutrition were luxuries.  Secondly, I love training my body as a whole unit.  If I hit a bumpy patch or a busy week, I can drop back to two lifts per week instead of three and still make progress.  I don’t have to worry that I didn’t get around to a certain muscle group and that my program for the week will be unbalanced.  I love that I’m training my body to work as a unit, major muscles and supporting muscles working in their natural relation to each other, not segmenting my body into parts.  Isolation training done properly maintains these natural balances, sometimes addresses imbalances created through our daily movement patterns.  Too often, though, inexperienced lifters focus on the muscles they can see, the “glamour muscles”, and forget the ones they can’t see, leaving their bodies unbalanced.

Perhaps most significantly though, I love conceptualizing my body as a whole, not as parts, and placing my focus on what my body can do not on how parts of it look, focusing on how much weight I can move, not on how my body looks as a result of my work.  In a culture where we already “pick apart” our bodies and believe in myths of spot reduction, and coming from a past where I overlooked the whole to criticize the part (“I can run fast, but I don’t like the way this part of my leg looks”), this approach feels good.  For me, training this way encompasses strength as a sum total of what my body can do, real-world movement patterns, my attitudes towards my body, and the ways I treat my body outside the weight room with regards to sleep, nutrition, and rest.  For me, training strength feels healthy and wholesome.

Strong Enough to Pull Myself Up

Training a pull-up became my first specific strength goal.  When I initially stood on the box to wrap my hands around the bar at Artemis’s “I Am Not Afraid to Lift Workshop”, I had not one pull-up in me. I could barely hang on to the bar without a slight touch of vertigo. I’m not sure I even had a pull-up in me in elementary school when we did the Presidential Fitness Test. But somehow I left that workshop with the wild goal of doing a weighted pull-up with a 53 pound (24kg) kettlebell chained to a belt around my waist.

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I had watched Artemis do weighted pull-ups!  I had watched her do a one armed pull-up!  Artemis invited us to try, and I watched as my friend Amy stood in front of the group and succeeded at a weighted pull-up with a 10kg kettlebell, 22 lbs.  Amy2It seemed easy enough to believe that I could do it too. Artemis had spent the morning busting myths of women and strength training – what women should do and what women can’t do. Myths like “women should ‘tone’ with 5# dumbbells” and “women can’t do pull-ups”, like an article in 2012 edition of the New York Times claimed in its title. No one in that gym full of strong women believed those myths. Why should I? Artemis gave me a goal and a clear path forward, exercises to progress me toward doing a pull-up and doing it well!

As I embarked on my pull-up project, I realized that most of the strength work I had done up until this point was for a general goal of building some muscle and staying in shape. I had been attempting to “tone” – not train (and I had just learned that “toning” isn’t a thing). Telling people I was headed to the free weight room to “train my pull-up” felt different. My pull-up! It felt good, empowering. I was training to get a pull-up, not to lose a pound. I was training for a positive goal; a goal to make myself more rather than less. I was training to pull myself up to a higher level.

Take a look at your goals. Are you training to get to a higher level or are you working out to avoid being something else? Training to be or not to be?  That is a question worth asking.

“I Am Not Afraid to Lift”

The first truly transformative strength workshop I went to was Artemis Scantalides’ “I Am Not Afraid to Lift” workshop for women.  It was held in only the second real strength training facility I had been in. No treadmills or bikes. Squat racks, pull up bars, kettlebells, iron.  Nothing the 18-year old, endurance-runner version of me would have recognized.  I met women of all ages (early 20s up through 70s); all of them were working on getting stronger. Talk about an inspiring community.

Artemis began as an accomplished ballet dancer who believed she was never thin enough, became a martial artist who was astounded to find a group of people who cared more about how tough and strong she was than how small she was, and went on to train with kettlebells and become a StrongFirst Level 2, Russian Kettlebell Certified level 2, and StrongFirst Team Leader. Along the way, she was inspired to attempt the Iron Maiden Challenge in the world of hardstyle kettlebell training, consisting of three lifts: an overhand grip dead-hang pull-up, a strict overhead press, and a pistol squat – all with a 53 pound (24kg) kettlebell. She trained for several years and missed her first attempt at the Iron Maiden, but ultimately became the ninth woman to earn the title of StrongFirst Iron Maiden and the only woman of her size: 5’1/2″ and approximately 115 pounds. Just about my size. Hum…..

Artemis does a great job of deconstructing a lot of myths about women and strength training. Myths about women and bulking, toning, spot reducing. (None of that is real, people. It just sells magazines). Her presentation is full of information that would be helpful for all women to know, not just those interested in strength training.

I walked away from that workshop smarter, but also with a few more crazy ideas: what if I could be an Iron Maiden by the age of 50?  OK, maybe back that up. What if I could do one unassisted pull-up?  What if I could do a pistol squat to depth?  What if I could train my brain to appreciate what my body could do and not criticize how it looked?  I walked away with specific goals. Something my training had lacked over the past 15 years since I stopped running races. I walked away with a new project, a purpose, and a clear direction – and not only is that fun, it feels good!